By Carl Tobias
This month Judge Charles Siragusa of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York assumed senior status after 15 years of service. His action means that the judiciary has 57 vacancies in the 679 district court judgeships and that the Western District of New York has one in four.
Another seat – that had been vacant since March 2009 mainly because Republicans stalled on Mike Green, the well-qualified nominee of President Obama – was filled this month when the Senate confirmed Judge Frank Geraci.
Certain observers criticized Obama for suggesting too few nominees in 2009, but he later picked up the pace. The administration has assiduously sought the guidance of Republican and Democratic senators from states where vacancies materialized before making nominations. Obama has proposed uncontroversial people of even temperament who are smart, ethical, hard-working, independent and increase diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender and ideology.
The Judiciary Committee has rapidly arranged hearings and votes, forwarding nominees to the floor, where many have languished. For example, in late September, the Senate confirmed two nominees, even though it could easily have acted on 19 others, most of whom the committee had approved with nominal or no opposition. The chamber recessed without considering any of those strong nominees, because Republicans would not vote on them.
The GOP must cooperate more. Republicans regularly held over panel votes for one week without convincing explanations. Nevertheless, the critical difficulty has been the chamber floor. Republicans have rarely entered temporal agreements to vote. Most problematic has been GOP refusal to vote on noncontroversial, excellent nominees – inaction that violates Senate customs. When senators have ultimately voted, they overwhelmingly confirmed most nominees, such as Lorna Schofield, whom they approved 91-0.
The 57 district openings are essential. Obama has nominated 26 highly competent individuals. Typical was former Monroe County Court Judge Geraci, whom the Senate approved by voice vote Thursday. Obama nominated him in May after the GOP blocked Mike Green. A substantial majority of the ABA rated the nominee well-qualified. Geraci had an uneventful June 27 committee hearing. The panel reported him with one no vote on July 19 and sent the nomination to the floor, where it languished until Thursday.
Geraci deserved rapid consideration because the Western District needs all four of its judges to help shoulder the large docket.
The 57 vacancies erode the delivery of justice. Thus, Obama must promptly nominate, and senators expeditiously approve, numerous exceptional judges.
Carl Tobias is the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond.